Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Lock in

I was asked yesterday on Twitter what it means when the shout goes up 'lock the doors' during votes. (Yesterday being one of those rare parliamentary occasions when political animals were glued to the TV, waiting to see how the House voted on AV).

Basically, there are two division lobbies which run either side of the Chamber, where we vote. The one behind the Government benches is the Aye lobby; the one behind the Opposition is the Noe lobby. There are three entrances to each lobby, and one exit during votes. So... if you're voting Aye, you'd either enter through big doors to the left just outside the Chamber at the back of the Speaker's Chair, or through one of the doors situated at the back of the Government benches, at the far right and far left. And you'd exit after going through the division lobby, giving your name to the clerk, and being counted by the Whips (the "tellers") at doors at the opposite end to the Speaker, just outside the Chamber, by Members' lobby.

If you're voting No, you'd enter on the right, at the opposite end from the Speaker's chair, or through the doors by the back rows on the far left and far right of the Opposition benches, and you'd emerge outside behind the back of the Speaker's Chair, on the right.

The tellers, btw, are the four people who come in, make their bows and announce the result of the votes. The winners always stand by the Opposition benches, and one of them who reads out the result. I was one of the tellers earlier this week, along with the Labour MP Bob Blizzard and the Tories, Bill Wiggin and John Baron. Not one of them under 6'2". Bill kindly suggested I should stand on one of the Despatch Boxes.

Anyway... we have eight minutes to get into the division lobbies. There's no time limit on getting out, but the Speaker will send one of the men in tights (who don't all wear tights, but it's a useful collective noun for them) to investigate if people are taking too long. It's usually about 15 minutes all told.

But back to the eight minutes... the very second those eight minutes are up, the call goes out "lock the doors!" and the doors are all slammed shut by the MITs. On busy days, with running whips (which means votes at any time, not that the whips run around frantically, 'though that's often the case too), it's not uncommon to see senior Government ministers sprinting through Members' lobby or up the stairs, trying to make the vote, only to see the doors slammed in their faces. No exceptions, no pleading - I've seen Cabinet Ministers miss votes before. So there you have it. If you think this is a strange way to run a democracy, wait till you read my next post.


Bristol Dave said...

Thanks for the insight. Have alternative voting systems other than people walking like cattle through doors been considered? I can't help but feel some sort of electronic system would be faster and easier. Is it just a desire to stick to tradition, however antiquated it might be?

Kerry said...

As I've said on here before, till I was elected I'd probably have agreed that the system of voting was ridiculous, but actually it can be the most important part of the day, in that it's an opportunity to talk to colleagues and, in particular, ministers. The division lobbies are always full of backbenchers lurking in wait to collar a minister - and what's best is that their civil servants can't come into the lobbies with them!